by Learning Lead Katie Yantzi
I’ve always been a happy thrifter when it comes to my wardrobe—second-hand shops and clothing swaps are my jam. This initially stemmed from frugal shopping habits and a desire to find unique pieces, but I’m becoming increasingly motivated by the sustainability aspect. The clothing industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions (what?!?), making buying secondhand and donating unwanted items an act of climate care. But what happens to my garments after I donate or resell them? Surely someone else will enjoy them, or they will be recycled. Unfortunately, even that isn’t true—85% of textiles, or 21 billion tons—end up in the landfill annually. And modern textiles contain a large amount of plastic, in the form of polyester and other synthetic fibres, meaning they won’t biodegrade.
All this has led to me trying to build a more sustainable wardrobe not just by thrifting, but also by mending what I already have, or upcycling old garments into new pieces. I have a mending pile that’s been growing for the past couple of years along with my conviction to care for my wardrobe and make it last. Included in my pile are a range of pieces, including woven shirts (cotton, linen, and fabrics without much stretch), knits (sweaters, socks, and jersey tshirts), jeans, and tennis shoes, as well as a shirt that is a bit stained and off-colour. A previous unsuccessful attempt to mend a stretchy tank top in the same way I would have patched up a woven shirt taught me that each type of fabric or garment requires different approaches. If I am truly committed to repairing my wardrobe, I know I’ll need to learn some different techniques.
Before diving in, I did a fair bit of research to figure out what methods might work best for the items I want to repair. I looked to other upcyclers, makers, and sustainable textile artists for inspiration, and examined every technique through a sustainability lens. I also wanted to learn approaches that are accessible for just about anyone to pick up with a bit of patience and practice; I tried to steer clear of anything requiring a lot of unique tools or materials that one might not already have at home.
Another guiding principle I decided on as I embarked on this project was to embrace visible mending—not needing to hide all of the stitches and patches makes it easier and allows for more creativity!
I decided to start with what I felt was the simplest (and something I already had some experience with) mending woven fabrics. They are easy to patch up because of their minimal stretch. The techniques I’ve used most often are similar to embroidery, with an added patch on the backside of the fabric for reinforcement. Using this approach, I mended some small holes that had appeared in a vintage floral tunic. I chose a scrap of yellow cotton fabric I had that was a similar type and weight to the tunic, embroidery floss, and a needle with a large enough eye to thread the embroidery floss (which has multiple strands) through. If all you have is a basic needle and sewing thread, this will work too—however, the finer the thread, the longer it’ll take to complete your mend.
I had an embroidery hoop at home, so I sandwiched the fabric between the hoops to hold it taught while I mended. If you don’t have an embroidery hoop, you can also just hold it as taught as possible with your opposite hand while making stitches. Or you can use an elastic to secure the fabric over something with a round opening, like an old yogurt tub. You can even cut a hole in the bottom so that you can thread the needle through the fabric on both top and bottom, just as you can with a hoop. If the fabric isn’t nice and tight, your stitches will be puckered and loose.
From there, tie a double (or triple) knot at the end of your thread, and thread from the back of the fabric first so the knot isn’t visible on the surface. Then stitch back and forth in whatever way you like—think of it like sketching or colouring with thread.
A few key things I learned:
- Make sure your fabric backing is much larger than the size of the hole you want to mend; it’ll be easier to hold it taught, and you can always trim it down to the perimeter of the mended area when you’re done
- Make sure you have more thread than you think on the needle (so you don’t have to stop and rethread)
- Make sure you stitch well outside of the area of the hole (further than you think you need to go)—often the fabric is thin around a hole and this will help your mend to last longer
Do you notice a common theme? 😉
I was happy with how my mending turned out, and how it worked with the design of the fabric. However, sometimes bigger holes call for bigger solutions.
This blue chambray shirt has been a wardrobe staple for years, and I’ve already mended it a few times using embroidery-type techniques. However, this recent hole was a bit too big for that, and I figured a patch on top would be the best way to secure it. Enter sashiko stitching!
This form of traditional Japanese hand-stitching has been used for centuries to reinforce worn clothing or piece scraps into new garments. It’s functional but also decorative, and sashiko stitching actually makes the mended fabric stronger than it was before. If that’s not a sustainable way to repair your wardrobe, I don’t know what is. You can use sashiko thread, but good old embroidery thread works too.
To set up my patch on top of the fabric, I folded under each edge (about ⅜”) so there were no raw edges showing that would fray over time. I pinned these in place, then started to stitch, making sure to secure the folded-under edges. You could draw out a pattern in chalk if you wanted, but I wanted to make this project as easy and uncomplicated as possible, so mine was completely freehand.
About halfway through, I discovered that, due to the somewhat awkward location of the hole near a seam, it was getting hard to stitch the patch on without the shoulder fabric bunching up. To solve this, I ended up trimming the patch shorter, and then adding a second (narrower) patch to fix the rest of the hole. It was definitely a process that I figured out as I went along. After securing the second patch, I did a few perpendicular stitches over the centre of the patched area (where the hole had been) for extra strength.
I love sashiko stitching! It’s relaxing and satisfying to see a repetitive pattern emerge, and the fabric definitely feels stronger than it did before. I’m excited to experiment more with this technique, and try out different designs—which is good, because if this shirt continues to be so well-loved, it’s sure to have more holes in the future.